Title: The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith
Author: Matthew Bowman
Publisher: Random House
Hallelujah! The world needed an accessible, neutral, brief, birth-to-present history of Mormonism, and it needed it right now. Matthew Bowman has written that book. Including every relevant moment from the boy Joseph’s leg operation to Twilight, and from suffragist Emmeline Wells to Broadway’s Elder Price, all in a slim 253 pages (plus several appendices), Bowman works a space-packing miracle reminiscent of Dr. Who’s TARDIS or Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. Opinion makers in the media, politics, and academia who want to join the conversation about Mormons will be well prepared by this brisk and rigorous overview, and I imagine many keeping a heavily Post-It-noted copy near at hand in the coming months and years. Bowman’s work shines most brightly in its detailed rendering of the uniquely fertile soil for religious innovation in the time and place of young Joseph Smith’s America, and its painstakingly balanced study of the early origins of the church. Interested outsiders will also find, in Chapter 8, an excellent portrait of daily life for “an active, committed Mormon family” today, including the rhythms of weekly meetings and activities, and private devotional life such as Family Home Evening.
Chapter one begins with a vignette of “the Prophet Matthias.” This colorful character claimed to be an Israelite prophet reborn, and had some small success as a charlatan preacher in New York before financial ruin and criminal justice involvement brought an end to it. Bowman introduces us to Matthias as he arrives in Kirtland to meet Joseph Smith, and Matthias’ first glimpse of Joseph and the hive of saints is ours as well. The choice is unexpected, not least because the figure of Matthias mirrors some of the most unflattering aspects, real and caricatured, of Joseph Smith. Claimed to be prophets, expected extreme financial sacrifice of followers, changed followers’ marriage arrangements–check, check, and check. We are thus immediately confronted with the uncomfortable question, what does set Smith apart from Matthias? Why does the latter lie “buried and forgotten,” while the former’s “name [is] recited and blessed in sermon and testimony by millions, the scripture he spoke and the rituals he taught cherished across the globe as the true and ordained way to God”?
Bowman’s answer seems to be, in large part, the titular “Mormon People.” When the Kirtland Safety Society collapses, when Boggs drives them from Missouri, when Joseph is martyred, when the federal government pushes the church to the brink over Utah polygamy, the Mormon people had their own momentum that steamrolled right through every hardship. Joseph was the instigator of a deeply collaborative effort to achieve a new kind of community. To start the movement, it took one charismatic figure with a vision of God, but the Mormon phenomenon went on to thrive, grow, and evolve because so many followers had their own visions and testimonies.
For the most part, Bowman describes supernatural visitations and the like in a factual voice. While I can imagine some particularly persnickety readers taking exception to this, I think it makes sense even for a neutral historical work. Crowding the prose with excessive “he said” “he claimed” is not necessary when Bowman does meticulously document counter opinions or facts. No member of the whos-who of “challenging” facts in church history is omitted from Bowman’s book: treasure-seeking, multiple accounts of the first vision, Mountain Meadows, and so on. Indeed, this is one thing that makes Bowman’s book so valuable–it is uncompromisingly frank, but not needlessly sensationalistic (I’m looking at you, Krakauer!).
There were instances where I thought I perceived Bowman inserting just a hair’s width more distance to a supernatural claim. I felt like a sneaky house guest peeking into my host’s medicine cabinet, wondering if this was a reflection of his own feelings on the detail in question, or my own projection, or just part of the random background variation in wording choices that occurs anytime one is filling 300+ pages describing sometimes repeating situations.
Something that maybe needed to be said, to drag us out of our presentism, was how common visions and stones and dowsers were in Joseph’s time. I counted several times where Bowman would list 3-5 names of other people, Biblical or contemporary, who did similar things. Perhaps it seemed at times over-emphasized to me precisely because my Mormon perspective inclines me to not view those things as shockingly strange, as they might seem to others. I am not the target audience for those lists, but I can understand the reason for including them.
If I take a moment to stop admiring this book for the outstanding achievement it is, and think about other things I might have wanted a hypothetical book to be, the first thing on the list would more anecdotal color–more journal entries here, more detailed visuals there. Take for example Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine. It gives a brisk academic summary of the key legal issues at stake in the opinions issued from the last several decades in the US Supreme Court, but it also gives enough close-up that keeps it lively and you feel like you know the personalities involved–reclusive Souter who in the off-season retreated to a Vermont cabin with no TV, the preening Kennedy. On the scale from can’t-put-it-down thrilling to textbook boring, Toobin is closer to Clancy than Bowman is. Maybe the difference is that Toobin only had 9 personalities and a few decades to cover, whereas Bowman has nearly 2 centuries and hundreds or thousands of personalities. Still, I would be quicker (very quick) to recommend this to an academic friend, or a serious reader, or as required reading for a class, or as required reading for anyone publicly commentating upon Mormons or Mormonism, than I would to just some hypothetical neighbor who is mildly curious about the church and typically only reads popular novels. I’m not sure what the right book for that hypothetical curious neighbor would look like. I would like to have a book like that, but at this juncture of media spotlight and serious dialog on history, ahistory, and current direction of the church, I am very grateful for the book Bowman did write.
Finally, I want to respond to reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times (what can I say, humility isn’t my strong suit). Both take Bowman to task for not “addressing” Krakauer and Big Love, but this is nonsense. Publisher’s Weekly itself explains why, “Bowman doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspects of the Mormon faith, including a now-discredited belief in polygamy (as revealed in a revelation to Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion), as well as institutionalized racism.” In other words, the book incorporates every factual, relevant criticism included in Krakauer. How that constitutes “left entirely unaddressed in this work” is a mystery, except that he wasn’t cited by name on each page. DKL does an able job explaining why Krakauer doesn’t merit named rebuttals on page after page. More than anything, these reviews expressing disappointment that pop culture expressions of Mormonism, including Krakauer, Big Love, and the Osmonds, were not given more prominence, just illustrate the dire need for Bowman’s book to provide the world a broader view of what Mormonism was and is. To too many outsiders, we are defined by a handful of narrow pop culture caricatures that entirely miss that broader view. What is disappointing is that, provided that broader view, the complaint seems to be, “but the view doesn’t emphasize the narrow caricatures in the proportion I have been accustomed to!”